The great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Photo: a Screen grab from a Newseum clip)
You couldn’t possibly be a journalist and not know at least a little bit about Ben Bradlee; even as little as that he existed. His death at 93 brings to an end the era of the quintessential daily newspaper editor. someone who always questioned everything, always remained skeptical after all the answers had been given and someone who treated news without being sentimental.
I was browsing through a few of his interview clips this morning and came across one by Newseum. In the one I have linked here the legendary Washington Post editor, who helmed the newspaper for 26 years and made it the world famous institution that it became, Bradlee talks about the circumstances under which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the daily’s two metro reporters, got the assignment which eventually became the Watergate story. He tells us that the reason why the two young reporters got assigned to the story was because it broke on a Saturday, “when big shot reporters like their weekends off”. “That is how they got their assignment. What they did with it was something else,” he says.
It is thoroughbred professionals like Bradlee who give daily journalism that aura of integrity and historic gravitas it enjoys. The figure of the daily newspaper editor is a unique one because they sit at the center of our current life and get to view it from a perch that is unrivaled. Every time I saw Bradlee on television the first thought that came to mind was “newspaper editor.” I know of extremely few journalists who actually become who they are. Bradlee was one of those rare ones. He was a great editor and had the bearing of one.
Between the Watergate scandal, America’s defining case of political corruption that led to the ignominious downfall of President Richard Nixon, and the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War, he transformed the Post from a metropolitan daily into a globally respected institution. Unless newspaper editors do what Ben Bradlee did with such ease, they should change their profession and join advertising or public relations or something along those lines.
There is a scene in ‘All the President’s Men’ where Bradlee, played by Jason Robards tells Woodward and Bernstein, “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody.” I do not know if in real life Bradlee ever said something like that it sounds like he could have.
So here is to the great Benjamin Crowninshield "Ben" Bradlee.